Cult information charity faces Charity Commission curb after complaint

Cult information charity faces Charity Commission curb after complaint

After 25 years in operation, the Cult Information Centre fears it may no longer be able to work effectively

The Guardian, UK/January 13, 2012

The Cult Information Centre faces Charity Commission curb after complaint.

More than 160,000 charities in England and Wales are registered with the Charity Commission, thereby qualifying for charitable status and the tax relief and fundraising advantages that brings. So what happens when a registered charity is deemed to be in breach of the commission's stringent criteria? While the commission can't withdraw charitable status, it must investigate any alleged breach of the conditions of charitable status and ensure the charity is compliant.

The Cult Information Centre (CIC) was granted education charity status in 1992 but has recently run into difficulties with the commission after complaints were received in 2007 that it is in breach of the rules governing status. Specifically, it is alleged that the CIC isn't neutral concerning its educational work, which means it could be deemed to be a campaigning or political organisation. A commission spokeswoman explained: "The problem is that the CIC's education work seems to be coming from a pre-conceived standpoint whereas, when we granted charitable status, we specified that any educational work needs to be objective and factual. There has been ongoing correspondence, and the charity's trustees have offered to conduct a review into the charity's work and practices."

The CIC, set up 25 years ago, offers information on cults and new religious movements to the general public, including families who have lost relatives to such groups and former cult members trying make sense of what their experiences. Ian Haworth, who runs the charity, also gives talks to schools and other organisations on the psychological techniques cults use to recruit people and the threat that cults can pose to young lives; it is this educational element of the charity's work that has been under the spotlight.

The commission has not revealed who is behind complaints. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, the commission has received complaints from numerous cults ever since the CIC was awarded charitable status, and Haworth is at a loss to understand why the commission is only now flexing its muscles. He likens the restrictions the commission is trying to impose to a drugs awareness charity being told it can still operate, as long as it never says drugs are bad.

Haworth said: "We were awarded charitable status 20 years ago in spite of complaints from the Moonies, Scientology and the Hare Krishnas, which the commission was prepared then to override. Meanwhile, the commission continues to award charitable status to some very sinister and suspect groups whose contribution to the public good is arguable, and now the CIC is being told it can't operate effectively.

"The commission has got it all so wrong, while the whole business has distracted us from our core work. Our website content is now problematic, and we can't fundraise properly or talk openly to the press about groups, which is particularly worrying given that the vast proportion of stories go untold because cults are so litigious.

"An educational charity must, they say, be neutral, but how can we be neutral about the dangers of the coercive psychological techniques cults use to recruit?"

The commission suggests the CIC may have to "change its objects" which, in non-commission-speak, means it must maintain its status by using different qualifying criteria, ie, not claim to be an educational charity.

The CIC argues vigorously that its work is beneficial to the public, and the thousands of people Haworth has helped over the 25 years would, he says, undoubtedly agree, but the charity will get into hotter water still if it doesn't toe the line on neutrality. The Church of Scientology was famously refused charitable status in 1996 on the grounds that any organisation claiming public benefit under the banner of "advancement of religion" must believe in a supreme being and/or worship to express its religious belief, neither of which is the case for Scientology. Had it made its claim on other grounds, it might have been successful.

Since the 2006 Charities Act, the criteria under which organisations may apply has expanded hugely from the very narrow relief of poverty, advancement of education or religion, and a general "public-benefit" umbrella, to the advancement of anything from from amateur sports to human rights.

The irony for the CIC is that many of the sorts of groups the charity has been warning young people about before they go off to university have themselves achieved charitable status. The world famous Unification movement, for example, more commonly known as the Moonies, has enjoyed charitable status since 1974. If the CIC is prevented from raising awareness about the dangers of cult recruitment, there is precious little else out there for concerned parents or others needing to find out about cults. One thing is certain: any forthcoming information resulting from contacting a cult group directly to find out what they are about would very definitely not be neutral.

The CIC was the first port of call in 2003 for a teacher from Liverpool who can't be named for fear of reprisals from the group who recruited her son. She said: "The CIC are unique because they have a wealth of information and contacts at their fingertips. They put me in touch with an expert in the particular field our son was involved with, who swiftly identified the supposedly buddhist group our son had joined as fake. The CIC put us in touch with the charity Catalyst who gave us invaluable legal advice, and we used CIC literature to hand out to police and other concerned agencies – their book is brilliant, and it was the most efficient way to convey what had happened to our family. It was also very comforting to talk to someone who understood and didn't think we were crazy. The Charity Commission shouldn't stop the CIC doing this important work."

• This article was amended on 13 January 2012. The original article said that "an official [from the Charity Commission] let slip at a meeting attended by Haworth, and some CIC trustees that it was the Church of Scientology" which had made the complaint to the Charity Commission about the CIC. This is denied by the Charity Commission which has asked us to make clear that it is the commission's policy not to reveal the source of any complaint and that the complaint came from an individual who did not claim to be making the complaint on behalf of any one else or any other organisation.

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